On the 250th anniversary of Thomas Lord's birth the founder of the world's most famous cricket ground remains elusive
"In the field, Lord generally stood at point, and his underarm bowling, for which
he was noted, was slow."
The world's best-known cricket ground took its name
from a Yorkshireman named Thomas Lord. His portrait hangs
above the fi replace in MCC's committee room in the pavilion
at Lord's, which is spelled with an apostrophe to emphasise that
it really was his ground.
The portrait shows a prosperous man in his fifties,
well-dressed and groomed, unsmiling. But concentrate on
the eyes: at first they appear guarded but I believe I can detect
a calculating look. This may be a
clue to a character who, 250 years
after his birth, remains elusive.
The essential information is
contained in the report of the
first match at Lord's between
Middlesex and Essex on May
31, 1789. This is included in
Frederick Lillywhite's Cricket
Scores and Biographies, volume
one, published in 1862.
Lord opened the innings for
Middlesex, scoring 1 and 36, in a
game Essex lost by 96 runs.
He was well built, 5ft 9in
and 12 stone. "In the field, Lord
generally stood at point, and his
underarm bowling, for which
he was noted, was slow." Here is
the fi rst degree of uncertainty. A
note at the bottom of the entry in
the copy held at MCC's library at
Lord's says: "In 1791, his bowling
was extremely rapid." Maybe, but
he did not take a wicket against
Essex, bowling either way.
He learned his cricket at school
in Diss in Norfolk and we learn
that he started to play at the
Artillery Ground in Moorfields,
where he met Lord Winchelsea
and Charles Lennox - later
the Duke of Richmond. These
grandees from the celebrated
Hambledon Club in Hampshire
were transferring their affection
to cricket in London. They had
started to play at the White
Conduit Club, north of the Angel
in Islington. Lord's job there was
to bowl at gentlemen.
Lord must have been
competent and obliging because
their noble Lords guaranteed
their patronage and support if he
opened a ground at Marylebone,
where there was still open
country. Lord was already in
the wine trade and here was a
means of expanding his business.
He built a stout fence round the
ground, which allowed him to
charge 6d admission and gave the
gents the privacy that was denied
them in Islington. The ground
straddled what became Dorset
Square, just west of Baker Street
underground station. Lord's
Ground there is the origin of the
Marylebone Cricket Club.
We learn that he was a canny
businessman. "Lord gave up
the ground in consequence of
a difference with his landlord
about a trifl ing addition to the
rent." Lord's Mark II was half a
mile up the road but did not stay
there long because the Regent's
Canal was routed through the
playing area. Lord's pocketed
the compensation and moved
a little further up the road to
Lord's Mark III, a more capacious
ground in St John's Wood. The
fi rst match there was on May
7, 1814. The rest is history. And
unless research into the Eyre
estate, which leased the land
to Lord, turns up some nice
surprises little of the history
belongs to the founder.
In Lillywhite Lord is a twodimensional
figure. A couple of stories fl esh him out a little.
He was a reputable figure who
became a member of the St
Marylebone Vestry in 1807
- helping to administer the
Poor Laws. He attracted wealthy
clients to his wine business.
Apparently he was a handsome
presence and charming
personality - a good salesman,
no doubt, but he also exhibited a
mean and ruthless streak.
To raise interest in cricket at
Lord's Mark I he offered £20 to
the fi rst batsman to hit a ball
out of the ground. EH Budd, a
famous power hitter, did so and,
elated, promised to spend the
money among his colleagues.
"Sad to relate," says Sir Pelham
Warner, "Thomas Lord seems not
to have honoured his word."
The three sites of Thomas Lord's cricket ground
In 1825 Lord "shocked the
entire cricketing establishment,"
writes Warner, by threatening
to sell the best part of his cricket
ground to a housing developer.
He announced that he had his
landlord's permission to develop
the land; were he to do so, only
150 yards would have been left
for the playing area.
Lord was paid off and
MCC bailed out by a splendid
fi gure called William Ward.
Not only did Ward score 278
for MCC against Norfolk in
1820 - it remained the highest
score at Lord's until 1925 - he
was a director of the Bank of
England, with strong ideas about
economic policy, and MP for the
City of London. Ward was also
rich enough to write a cheque
for £5,000 to Lord, to save Lord's.
This allowed him to retire in
comfort. He left his house in St
John's Wood Road and moved to
West Meon in Hampshire, where
he died on January 13, 1832. Lord
Harris and FS Ashley Cooper
later wrote what Lord would
have accepted as a suitable
epitaph. "The fact must not be
lost sight of that he came of
good stock and that, by his own
efforts, he not only gained the
respect and friendship of many
of the highest people in the land
but also retrieved the family's
fortunes." Up to a point, my Lord.
Lillywhite's brief biography
gets the date of Lord's birth
wrong. It says he was born in
Thirsk on November 22, 1757.
The correct date is November
23, 1755, but it is also mistaken
about his origins. The story
that appears in every account
of Lord's life, and could have
come only from his family,
insists that they were Catholics
and that Thomas's father,
William Lord, had his property
confi scated after the collapse of
Bonny Prince Charlie's rebellion
in 1745. One history suggests
William was wealthy enough
to fi nance a troop of 500 horses
at his own expense. Afterwards
"Lord's father had to work as a
labourer in the very farm that
had once belonged to him," says
The story disguises truly
humble beginnings. Stephen
Green, in his history of Lord's,
spoils it: "There is no evidence
to support any involvement in
the Jacobite cause," he writes.
Cooper Harding, who runs the
Thirsk Museum on the site of
Lord's birth at 14-16 Kirkgate,
has found William Lord's name
on the poor rolls. He was helped
with his rent in 1752, and in
1756 the custodians of the Poor
Law agreed to pay William Lord's
fare to London. A few months
later they gave his wife 6s so that
she and the children could join
William in London. Rent arrears
were paid off.
Harding says: "There is
no evidence that Lord owned
anything in this area." He does,
however, think it is possible they
supported the Stuart uprising. "I
think they were a political hot
potato, and their fares were paid
to get rid of them," he says.
Thomas Lord is celebrated
through hundreds of years
because he was an ambitious
man who took risks and
established a unique sporting
arena. His other distinguishing
feature was good luck, and that
is almost as rich an inheritance
as a cricket ground. On the
bicentenary of his birth England
won the Ashes. They won them
again on the 250th anniversary
in 2005. They had also won them
on the 150th anniversary of his
birth in 1905 - not only a
monument but a mascot.
This article was first published in the March issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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